Is Rishi Sunak’s baptism of fire as prime minister evidence that politicians who’ve been Leader of the Opposition make the best PMs?
Some MPs claim Mr Sunak’s early blunders – the disastrous appointment of Sir Gavin Williamson to the cabinet table and his COP27 U-turn, for example – reveal not only a lack of experience but a political naivety.
And at this week’s bruising Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, the novice PM appeared to be so nervous that at one point he failed to stand up when it was his turn to respond to Sir Keir Starmer.
Let’s not forget, Mr Sunak is by a long way the most inexperienced politician to become PM in modern times. He succeeded William Hague as MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire in 2015, just seven years ago.
Although he was quickly tipped as a rising star, his ministerial CV was limited – a junior housing minister, then Treasury chief secretary – until he succeeded Sajid Javid as chancellor in February 2020.
His Tory critics would claim that all the slick videos and the fancy branding are pretty worthless if a PM makes a hash of party management, including making bad choices in key ministerial jobs, and lacks political nous and guile.
Earlier this year, many of Mr Sunak’s own supporters on the Tory benches were alarmed by how badly he handled the tax row over his wife’s non-dom status – an issue Labour MPs are still seeking to exploit now.
For his part, Sir Keir was ridiculed earlier this year when he told Labour’s shadow cabinet to stop briefing the press that he was boring and declared: “What’s boring is being in opposition.”
Maybe. But being an opposition leader is a good apprenticeship for being prime minister.
Opposition leaders have the luxury of making their mistakes, bad appointments and U-turns when it doesn’t much matter and before they enter 10 Downing Street.
In modern times, Tony Blair had three years as Leader of the Opposition, from 1994 when John Smith died until 1997, before his decade in Number 10.
David Cameron had five years as opposition leader, from his election as Tory leader in 2005 until he formed his coalition government in 2010.
Arguably, both were more successful as PM than their successors. Gordon Brown, who had only held one cabinet post, chancellor, before becoming PM, and Theresa May, who’d been home secretary for six years.
In opposition, Mr Blair junked Labour’s Clause 4 and cleared out the shadow cabinet he largely inherited from Neil Kinnock. Mr Cameron used his time as Leader of the Opposition to modernise the Tories and drag them into the 21st century.
Before stepping down in 2007, Mr Blair warned Mr Cameron at PMQs to beware of Mr Brown’s “big clunking fist”. Yet by the end of that year, Mr Brown was being mocked by the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable for going “from Stalin to Mr Bean”.
Theresa May, who succeeded Mr Cameron after the 2016 EU referendum, couldn’t cope with Brexit and called a disastrous general election in 2017 in which the low point was her plaintive “Nothing has changed!” cry over a dementia tax U-turn.
Provided he survives the COVID inquiry that has just got underway, history may well judge that Boris Johnson handled the pandemic well. But he was brought down by sleaze and the three Ps: Paterson, partygate and Pincher.
Liz Truss may have been an experienced cabinet minister when she defeated Mr Sunak for the Tory leadership in the summer. But clearly, she lacked the guile and political skills to implement her tax-cutting agenda without bringing the country to the brink of financial collapse.
Further back, Margaret Thatcher succeeded Edward Heath in 1975 and spent four years in opposition plotting her crusade of spending cuts, trade union reforms and privatisation with her guru Sir Keith Joseph before becoming PM in 1979.
Most Tory MPs would agree that John Major, who succeeded her as PM in 1990, was a flop in comparison, because of Black Wednesday in 1992 and years of Tory civil war over Europe before the Conservatives were crushed by Labour in 1997.
Prior to Mrs Thatcher, James Callaghan had succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976 and presided over financial turmoil, with chancellor Denis Healey going cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund, and then the ‘winter of discontent’ – when the country was crippled by strikes.
Wilson, by contrast, had the luxury of a year as opposition leader after Hugh Gaitskell died in 1963 before his 1964 election victory and then – in a luxury a party leader wouldn’t be afforded now – led the opposition again during Edward Heath’s 1970-74 government.
It has to be said, of course, that Heath, who had been opposition leader from 1965 until his 1970 victory, disproves the theory that opposition leaders make the best PMs, presiding over strikes, three-day weeks and blackouts.
In his new biography of Wilson, who won four general election victories and is often viewed as the consummate political tactician and party manager, Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds argues that he had two objectives.
They were to keep his party together and to stay in Europe – and he achieved both, the shadow international trade secretary claims. Compare that with Cameron’s attempts to do the same, which ended in disaster!
Thomas-Symonds also argues that while Roy Jenkins got the credit for Labour’s social reforms of the 1960s – on issues like abortion, homosexuality and race – it was Wilson who made sure there was parliamentary time for them to become law.
In a famous quote, another politician of the 1960s and 70s, Enoch Powell, remarked: “All political careers end in failure.”
And that’s true even of PMs like Blair and Cameron, who are perceived as being relatively successful.
Labour MPs will tell you Blair should have said a resounding no to US president George W Bush on Iraq in 2003, just as Wilson did to Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s over Vietnam.
And Cameron’s Brexit gamble blew up in his face, though it served Boris Johnson well in the 2019 general election, when he won the Tories’ biggest Commons majority since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987.
But no one could ever accuse any of the UK’s leading prime ministers of naivety and inexperience, which is what some critics claim Rishi Sunak is suffering from at the moment.